Published: 20th November 2017
This Chennai girl is training rural women in Gujarat to make their own sanitary napkins
Ashwini Rajkumar found out that most women in the village didn't have a clue about menstruation and had unhealthy menstrual hygiene practices — so she got them to pad up. Literally
When Ashwini Rajkumar was first sent to Gujarat as part of her rural development programme, she was shocked to see how most women lived completely unaware of their own bodies. Women who had no clue about why menstruation happens even after having two or three kids, women who didn't know how to keep themselves clean and healthy. She knew right then that this would lead to much bigger problems if it wasn't curbed right then. Her solution? Cloth pads that they could make themselves. And what a life-changer that turned out to be.
An engineering graduate, Ashwini had some experience in the healthcare sector, but never found it satisfying enough. "I felt like I was living in a box," she says. So, she decided to take a sabbatical and travel for a year. Through her travels across the country, her perspectives on life changed and she wanted to do something more fulfilling. She applied for a rural development fellowship. And after the course, she was immediately sent to a village in Gujarat. "It was all so new to me, I didn't know the language or the culture. At the fellowship, they usually send people to places out of their comfort zone, not their hometown because if you're a local in the place, you tend to complain about it and can't really look for solutions. Being an outsider helps you spot problems and find solutions quickly," says the 26-year-old, who grew up in Chennai.
Know your body: Ashwini trains adolescent girls about the process of menstruation
During her first week there, she went around visiting government centres like anganwadis, hospitals and schools, trying to find out what issues people were facing. There were some women self-help groups which she started frequenting. "In the process, I realised that they didn't know how to take care of themselves. They get married very early, have about two or three kids by the time they're 22. They're very malnourished and have no idea about how their body works, but they're already expected to start a family. I was shocked to understand that even after having children, these women didn't know what menstruation is and why it happens to them. It's just accepted as a myth," says Ashwini.
To make matters worse, there were some health issues as well due to their unhygienic methods. The women would dry their cloth napkins in damp places where their husbands couldn't see them. There were a few who used disposable napkins, but they didn't know how long to use it. Since the basic problem was lack of education about menstruation, Ashwini took it up as a challenge to teach adolescent girls about the process. "I also showed them different hygiene products like pads, tampons and menstrual cups. One day, I showed them a cloth pad and they were really fascinated by it. I asked them if they would like to make them, and they were very excited to. So I conducted a workshop, where we sourced the materials and taught them how to stitch pads on their own," says Ashwini.
Earning their bread: Now, women make their own cloth pads and sell them at a low cost
After the positive feedback, she decided to reach out to the women in the community. She talked to a few who knew tailoring, sat with them and came up with a good design that was easy to make and cost-effective. They decided to sell it within the community at a very low cost, so that it could also become a source of income for these women.